Wednesday 28 May 2014

Tide a Long Time in "Turning"

Back in February 2009 it looked for a while like "The tide turns for the British Antiquities market" (PACHI Monday, 16 February 2009):
The publication today of the Final report of the Strategic Study on Illegal artefact hunting seems to mark an important watershed in the long and sordid story of the British market in portable antiquities.[...]  We should recognize that there are limits to the degree public education will have an impact on this group of individuals ['nighthawks']. The report recognises this and concludes that the motor for this activity (there is a substantial analysis of eBay sales on which this is based ) is the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities. The conclusion is that the most effective means of dealing with the problem of illegal artefact hunting in the UK is to close the loopholes that allow them to find a market for the commodities they produce to make the venture worthwhile. Removing the ability to profit financially would clearly reduce the motive for these criminals to operate.

Monitoring of eBay UK by the Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum since October 2006 [main report pp 82-88] has shown that an element of the illegal movement of unreported Treasure items has been the lack of due diligence by British dealers in establishing provenance and title to sell while handling such material (hence current moves to have the Treasure Act amended to make it a requirement for all who come into possession of Treasure to have an obligation to report it). This monitoring of sales of antiquities listings on eBay shows a steady rise in the number of unprovenanced British antiquities on sale each month. Some of these at least seem likely to be the products of “nighthawking”, but which ones?

It is heartening to see that as a result of this report, British archaeologists are at last looking at the possibilities of regulating the local antiquities market. They are taking a vivid interested in the regulations reported here which were introduced last year on eBay in Germany, Austria and Switzerland which have shown that the auction house is prepared to take stricter action than has been the case so far in the UK. The Council for British Archaeology and PAS are now suggesting that Britain should be pressing eBay to follow suit in the UK to close down online auctions of illicitly acquired material.

The Director of the CBA suggested today at the launch of the Illegal artefact hunting report that there is a need for the introduction of a new criminal offence for a person to deal in such objects without being able to produce a clear modern provenance. Such a reform in attitudes and legislation would introduce the necessary transparency into dealings in cultural objects and ensure prospectively that persons dealt only in such objects with a recorded and substantiated background. Apparenly such a proposal is currently being discussed by a working group of the APPAG with the aim of identifying a way to add this to the legislation of England and Wales. There will be a review of the 1996 Treasure Act later in the year which will provide an opportunity to discuss this proposal with policy makers.
The British archaeological establishment (all of it) has been aware since February 2009, if they'd slept through it in the two decades before, that something needs to be done about the sales by British dealers of unprovenanced dugup artefacts from Britain. A concrete proposition was made. The CBA said they were going to action it... and .... and? Basically, this does not need a rewrite of the Treasure Act, because quite obviously the latter is not going to happen before the last polar bear in the wild dies. An agreement could be reached with eBay in the same way as was recently reached with Egypt (and hopefully will be reached with Syria) to close any auction where the dealer does not fulfil certainconditions intended to prevent the sale of illicitly-obtained material.

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